Arctic Sentinels: Muskoxen Unveil Climate Change Realities

climate change impact on musk ox arctic Norway floris Smeets

In 2010, I laid my eyes on a muskox for the very first time.

Back then, I was in Sunndalsfjella National Park, Dovrefjell, Norway, doing fieldwork for a research project on wild reindeer.

While I was given a lot of information about the wild reindeer and the area, muskox was a completely unknown species to me. I had only seen the species on TV, but it never caught my attention.

musk ox dovrefjell floris Smeets
The muskox, a prehistoric creature.

This is until I saw them with my own eyes.

The prehistoric look of this creature, placed in the harsh and dramatic landscape of Dovrefjell, gave me the feeling that I travelled a million years back in time.

The muskox found a special place in my heart, and I regularly kept going back to Dovrefjell to photograph these fascinating animals.

The muskox of Norway

The muskox is one of the few prehistoric species which still roams this planet. Until roughly 30,000 years ago, during the last ice age, muskoxen roamed freely in Norway. The current population, however, had to be reintroduced to Norway twice.

Muskoxen photograph
A herd of muskoxen in typical Dovrefjell winter conditions.

In 1932 the first muskoxen were captured in Greenland and brought over. During the Second World War, sadly, these muskoxen were all killed.

From 1947 to 1953 there were several more muskoxen captured in Greenland and brought to Dovrefjell. After the last release, the population started to grow by itself. Currently, there are roughly 250 muskoxen in Dovrefjell. 

While their name might suggest otherwise, muskox are actually related to goats and sheep.

musk ox dovrefjell
Because of the extremely insulating fur, the snow doesn’t melt on the muskox.

An adult muskox ranges between 180 and 410 kilograms. They are perfectly adapted to living in the extreme arctic cold with a thick layer of incredible fur keeping it warm, even in temperatures well below -40°C.

Dovrefjell, Norway

Dovrefjell is a stunning but harsh mountain region in central Norway, with steep peaks rising straight up out of the large tundra plateau.

dovrefjell Norway floris smeets
Winter landscape in Dovrefjell.

Most of this plateau is situated 1000 meters above sea level, with most mountains reaching far above 1500 meters and many peaks above 2000 meters.

The highest mountain, called Snøhetta, reaches 2286 meters high and is covered in snow most of the year, making it an iconic landmark. 

Weather in Dovrefjell

The altitude of the terrain in this region greatly influences the temperature.

The mountain plateau stretches from the centre of the country to the coast, which also has a great impact on the temperature and the weather systems coming through these mountains.

The weather can be very unpredictable and can change several times within a single day.

With a slight change in wind direction, strong coastal winds get tunnelled through the valleys and pushed over the mountains, often bringing a lot of precipitation and extremely high wind speeds.

bull muskox Norway
A large bull struggling to keep up with the rest of the herd.

It is these harsh conditions and cold temperatures which make the area the perfect home for the well adapted muskox.

But now, due to climate change, our planet is warming up at an unseen speed and these animals are facing an increasingly difficult time.

The impact of climate change on muskoxen

During the winter months, temperatures used to sit well below zero. Periods with temperatures between -20°C and -40°C were very common. Sadly, however, these cold winters are becoming rarer.

With the increasing temperature and more unstable weather systems, the muskoxen suddenly face difficulties during the winter period.

When the temperature hovers around 0°C, the snow becomes wet and sticky, making it easy for snow and ice clumps to form in the muskox’s long fur.

This is becoming an increasingly common sight year after year and poses a very real threat to muskoxen.

climate change musk ox
Due to the warm temperature huge clumps of snow and ice have formed in the fur of the muskoxen.

A few years back I found a large bull which had fallen behind on the rest of the herd. When I got closer, I could see what was slowing him down.

Huge clumps of snow and ice were hanging under his chin.

The temperature had been around 0°C for a few days and the snow quickly accumulated in his long chin hairs. However, the temperature suddenly dropped again, turning the trapped snow into about 15kg ice clumps.

muskoxen dovrefjell Norway floris Smeets
Due to the warm temperature huge clumps of snow and ice have formed in the fur of the muskoxen.

It was easy to see the struggle he was in. Repeatedly, he tried to get rid of the huge ice ball by shaking his head. This only caused a wound to form under his chin.

During winter, muskoxen try to save as much energy as possible due to the limited access to food, which has low nutritional value. Snow and ice accumulating in their fur cause them to unnecessarily expend extra energy trying to rid themselves of these heavy clumps.

This directly influences their chances of survival.

musk ox Norway climate change
Snow and ice have accumulated in the fur of the muskox. He repeatedly kept trying to shake it off but only managed to get rid of the loose snow.

The increasingly unstable weather also poses a threat to the muskox’s way of life.

This unstable weather leads to more storms coming through the region, with warm air from the sea being pushed straight up the mountains of Dovrefjell.

Due to this, temperatures can jump from -20°C to +4°C within 24 hours. These storms often bring a lot of precipitation too, meaning it can now suddenly rain in the middle of the winter.

climate change impact on musk ox arctic Norway floris Smeets
Snow and ice have accumulated in the fur of the muskox. He repeatedly kept trying to shake it off but only managed to get rid of the loose snow.

The snow melts quickly with the combination of warm wind and rain.

Because the ground itself is still frozen, the rain then turns into a solid layer of ice when it hits the ground. Depending on the amount of rain and how often it rains during the winter, this layer can grow up to 10 centimetres thick.

muskoxen dovrefjell Norway
The ground is covered with a thick layer of ice, making it difficult for the muskoxen to reach their food.

All the food within and below this layer of ice has now become unreachable for the muskoxen. Added to this, the now icy and slippery slopes prevent the muskoxen from reaching higher areas which hold a lot of their winter food sources. 

calf musk ox Norway
A calf separated from the herd, struggling to survive..

Losing a large proportion of the already scarce amount of food available can be disastrous. The survival chance of the calves and the still unborn calves decreases drastically. 

An uncertain future in the Arctic

The climate is changing, and these changes are already being felt in Arctic regions. I have used the story of the muskox to show you how these regions and their inhabitants are affected.

But many other species living in arctic regions are facing similar struggles.

The wild reindeer also lose their food source when the ground is covered in a layer of ice.

This layer of ice on the ground can also wipe out large proportions of the lemming populations.

This lemming population is one of the main food sources of the arctic fox. Without the lemming, the arctic fox won’t be successful in reproducing.

musk ox climate change arctic wildlife Floris Smeets
A muskox is well equipped to stand against the most severe arctic storm, but how will it stand against global warming?

The struggles are not only felt during the winter. During the summer, muskoxen are suddenly facing new challenges.

They are perfectly adapted to living in cold conditions but are in danger of overheating and are more vulnerable to diseases during the warm summers, which are only getting warmer year by year.

With the ever-increasing temperature, it is unsure what the future of these Arctic species looks like.

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